Editor’s Notes: Live By Night will be out on in its respective home video format March 21st.
Live By Night (Warner Home Video), the new film starring and directed by Ben Affleck, is a Prohibition Era gangster tale of dangerous romance, vengeance, and underworld politics necessitated by changing times. Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, an Irish-American World War I vet from Boston who turns to a life of crime after returning home from Europe. In a voiceover, Joe tells us he “left a soldier and returned an outlaw.” He concentrates on grabbing cash at high-stakes poker games and bank stick-ups. The son of a cop (Brendan Gleeson), Joe treads on dangerous ground by setting his eyes and affections on flapper Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the moll of Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister).
This romantic alliance leads to a bad turn of events for Joe and a jail term. Needing to start anew after his release, he looks to Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), who sends him to Tampa to run rum and shut down White’s southern operations.
Joe’s weakness is women and his involvement with three of them is woven into the film. Aside from Emma, there’s Loretta (Elle Fanning), a fundamentalist preacher patterned on Aimee Semple McPherson, who threatens to throw a monkey wrench into his plans to extend the mob’s influence in Florida. The third is Graciela (Zoe Saldana), the sultry sister of Joe’s Cuban connection. Each of the women becomes involved in Joe’s personal and professional life in ways that drive the story.
Live By Night is an overly ambitious film with too many sub-plots. Director Affleck’s attempt to include as much from the 2012 Dennis Lehane novel of the same name as possible makes the movie feel overstuffed. He includes a corrupt Florida cop (Chris Cooper) with an odd code of morality, interference from the Ku Klux Klan, a bromance with Joe’s old partner in crime (Chris Messina), strained relations with Pescatore, racial tension, addiction, and the reappearance late in the film of key characters.
Affleck’s performance is one-note. Whether his Joe is romancing a woman, testing fellow gangsters, using muscle, or relying on charm and the power of persuasion to make a point, he has a quiet resolve that seems patterned on Michael Corleone in The Godfather films. And there are more than a few similarities to The Godfather, especially an attempt to blend gangster and personal life in a colorful period.
On the plus side, the picture is extremely well cast, and the supporting performances keep us involved. Gleeson (with a thick brogue that’s often hard to understand), Fanning, Miller and Messina are all convincing. Max Casella as Pescatore’s son, Anthony Michael Hall as a local business man easily intimidated by Joe, and Matthew Maher as the sheriff’s bigoted moronic brother-in-law with influence in the Klan all contribute colorful characterizations.
Very stylish, with outstanding production design and attention to detail, the film is analogous to a mediocre painting in a resplendent building. It promises far more than it delivers.
Rated R, Live By Night has a generous helping of violence and pretty strong dialogue. With all its care and first-class elements, it’s a shame the film isn’t more than a showy gangster flick.
Bonus features on the Blu-ray release include the featurettes “The Men of Live By Night,” ”Live By Night’s Prolific Author,” “Angels With Dirty Faces: The Women of Live By Night,” and “In Close-Up: Creating a Classic Car Chase;” director’s commentary; and deleted scenes with commentary.